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Salinas is still the salad bowl, but needs to make room for fruit

by Tim Linden | May 16, 2011

California’s Salinas Valley has long been called the “Salad Bowl” of the nation as its 225,000 irrigated acres have been home to the country’s largest concentration of commercial vegetable production for decades.

And that is still the case. But today the contents of that salad bowl have become more diverse and even include some fruits. In fact, over the past two years, strawberries have become the top-valued individual crop grown in Monterey County, which encompasses the Salinas Valley. The valley itself stretches about 90 miles from north of Salinas to south of King City, CA.

Because of double cropping, the valley yields about 350,000-370,000 acres of fruits and vegetables each year, with vegetable production typically accounting for more than 300,000 acres and fruits hovering around the 55,000-acre mark.

The fruit production is much easier to quantify as it is dominated by grapes and strawberries. The grapes are basically wine grapes with currently about 40,000 acres in the valley. As in most of California, wine grape production grew tremendously in the 1990s but has slowed a bit in the last several years as there is currently a sufficient supply of wine grapes in the Golden State.

Strawberry acreage, on the other hand, has been on a growth curve in California for 20 years. Of course, Watsonville, CA, which is north of Salinas by about 20 miles, is the strawberry capital of the area, but acreage growth has been inching south for many years. In 2009 (the last year for which there are figures), more than 11,000 acres of strawberries were grown in Monterey County, which was about a 7 percent increase over the previous year. That’s been the typical growth curve for the last handful of years. The strawberry crop value in 2009 was $756 million, which was the first time the fruit item topped the individual list of products.

When the lettuce crops are grouped together, they still reign supreme with 143,000 acres in 2009 and a crop value of almost $1.2 billion. But that lettuce category includes both iceberg and the leaf items. Iceberg lettuce is still the top lettuce variety, accounting for almost 49,000 acres in 2009 and a crop value of $435 million. The leaf lettuces are grouped together and included a handful of different varieties such as romaine, green leaf, red leaf and butter lettuce. Leaf lettuce acreage has been increasing as a percentage of the overall lettuce acreage for several years. In 2009, it accounted for about two-thirds of that acreage with more than 94,000 acres and a crop value of $736 million.

Broccoli is another vegetable that is on the rise, and in 2009 its acreage actually topped that of iceberg lettuce. Counting both fresh and processed broccoli in one category yeilds a total acreage of more than 56,000 and a crop value near $280 million. Celery and cauliflower are other important vegetables, checking in with 12,000 and 19,000 acres and crop values of $172 million and $112 million.

One interesting vegetable with regard to its acreage history is spinach. Spinach production grew tremendously in the late 1990s and the first five years of this century due to the advent of mechanical harvesting of the crop and the growth of bagged salads. In 2005, about 16,000 acres were planted and harvested. In September of 2006, a spinach contamination crisis caused the immediate dumping of some production and demand dropped off the table for the rest of the year. Production has come back since then but it is not close to pre-iincident levels. The closest it has come was in 2008 when about 13,000 acres were produced. It is always difficult to compare one year to the next because many different factors enter into a grower’s planting decisions. Suffice it to say, spinach is not yet back to its heyday.

One other interesting fact to note is that across the board acreage is much more diversified than it was just a half- dozen years ago. In 2005, the lettuce crops represented about 75 percent of the vegetable acreage grown in the Salinas Valley. In 2009, lettuce acreage only made up 50 percent of the vegetable acreage in Salinas Valley. Almost every other vegetable item has had acreage gains in that time period.

In 2009, the Salinas Valley had a fruit and vegetable farm value in excess of $3.6 billion.